Articles in Memoir

Sad Cake. Credit: Barbara Haber

A British friend recently told me about a cake she grew up with called Sad Cake. That title struck me as pretty funny because when we think about cake we are conditioned to connect it to happiness — birthdays, anniversaries, all sorts of joyous celebrations. It turns out, though, that this British cake found in Lancashire got its name because it’s made from leftover pastry and has no filling such as the layer of candied peel, lots of currants and spices found in Eccles cake, a British favorite. Instead, sad cake is studded with just a few currants, and comes out of the oven looking flat and a little dejected.

Deflating dishes

Discovering sad cake got me thinking about the sorts of foods that sink my spirits, and I will be quick to say that what brings on melancholy in me may give others joy. For instance, when I order a restaurant main course described as including green vegetables only to wind up with a large hunk of meat, a pile of potatoes and two lonely string beans artfully placed, I feel a little sad because I wanted more of the beans. No doubt, this same plate of food would be completely satisfying to someone else.

I remember a time when I ordered tarte tatin, fully expecting to receive the classic upside-down caramelized apple pie, thick and toothsome. What was placed before me was a deconstructed version of the dish, a circle of pastry on one side of the plate, a pile of stewed apples across from it, and in the middle a little puddle of caramel sauce. The pastry chef no doubt had fun taking apart this wonderful dish, but I was left feeling bereft, longing for a thick slice of this beloved pie in which the flavors commingle.

Another sort of food that lowers my mood is the sight of blue or pink frosting on cakes. For me, only chocolate or caramel frosting will do, a prejudice I suspect comes down from my mother who used to say rude things about artificially dyed foods. This brings me to an important distinction I must make between foods that make me sad and those that are revolting. Sad foods leave me feeling forlorn and disappointed. Revolting foods are downright stomach-turning.

What usually turns off people are foods outside of their culture and experience. If you didn’t grow up eating chicken feet or even rabbits, the thought of them can send chills. The mere idea of eating other small wild animals is repulsive to people who are not used to dining on squirrels or raccoons. What I find disagreeable these days is how bacon turns up in unexpected places. I was served a sugar cookie recently, and instead of coming across chocolate chips or raisins, I bit into little chunks of greasy bacon. Disgusted by this innovation, I discreetly spat a mouthful into a napkin and ditched the rest of the cookie. So, it is the unpleasant combination of ingredients and flavors that also are candidates for my revolting foods category. I don’t like Fluff with peanut butter, or bananas with anything, but unlike many people, I just love Miracle Whip, especially on cold chicken sandwiches. Again, I find that tastes vary considerably, not only from one country to another but from one family to the next.

One person’s anger is another’s …

The last related category in my compendium is foods that make you angry. When the medium-rare hamburger I ask for in a decent restaurant comes back well-done and gray, my passions rise. Sometimes entire meals can be vexing. I once attended a tasting dinner at a high-end restaurant, and of the six people around our table, only my husband was new to the game. Each course had different dishes that were set before us, and the idea was to take a taste and then pass the plate on to the person seated at our right. That way we all had a taste of everything without getting stuffed, and as far as I was concerned, the meal could have gone on forever, for we foodies, or “foodists” as some would prefer, were feeling happy about having our appetites and curiosity appeased. However, when I later asked my husband if he had enjoyed the meal, he told me that it made him mad because every time he really liked something, the plate was snatched away and he was handed something not nearly as good. Go figure.

The moral of all of this is that food creates mood, a well-known observation that is played out in literature and life. In “Like Water for Chocolate,” a young girl, thwarted in love, projects her grief onto the food she prepares, causing all who eat it to cry and sob. A more recent novel, “The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake” uses a similar magical device to give a young girl the ability to identify the cook’s genuine emotions in what she eats. In tasting her mother’s lemon cake, for instance, the girl discovers that her seemingly cheerful mother is a lonely and unhappy woman. These books, though full of high drama and literary license, are just another way of telling us that food affects our emotions.

I would only add that we each experience this truth in our own way.

Main photo: Sad Cake. Credit: Barbara Haber

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Flagels. Credit: Barbara Haber

When I hear about a tantalizing version of a food I love, nothing will stop me from going to the ends of the earth to find it, and I mean this literally. I am way too fond of confections and have been known to track down the best almond candy in Seville, the most delicious licorice in Helsinki or Amsterdam, and, when in Italy, the tastiest hazelnut chocolates. I go off in crazed pursuit of an obsession, tasting along the way to ensure I find the best. These hunts in foreign countries are no easy task since I have no sense of direction, so I try to take along a willing friend on these missions.

Of course I do not have to be abroad to find favorite candies. American cities often have unique treats worth seeking. When in California, I always visit a See’s candy shop. Although See’s boxed assortments are available east of the Mississippi, the shops are located mainly west of the river and only there can I buy whole boxes of my favorite piece, the delectable peanut crunch. In New Orleans I seek out the best pralines, and in Nashville Goo Goo Clusters, and I have recently discovered in Milwaukee the resurrection of the Giant Bar, a milk chocolate bar studded with peanuts, a grade-school favorite I thought was extinct.

But sweets are not the only foods I seek to satisfy a yen. I also have a weakness for bakeries that produce excellent bread, and for years have been in pursuit of the perfect bagel. What I was finding in most stores was far removed from the bagels I remember from my childhood. Handmade by bagel professionals, those objects of my desire were small with a hard and shiny crust, a chewy interior. These days, bagels are being churned out by machine and have become bloated and doughy, and even have pretension of being muffins in that some are made with blueberries, a hideous travesty.

But those days of responding sullenly to present-day bagels came to an end when I discovered flat bagels or “flagels” as they are lovingly called. I was at a brunch in New York when the hostess put out a basket brimming with a kind of bagel I had never seen before. They were large and flat, mostly crust with very little interior so there was no gummy stuff to contend with, and they were studded with poppy seeds or sesame, my favorite. And so I went on a hunt for the best flagels in NYC and found them at David’s bagel bakery on 1st Avenue. I bring back a bagful when I am in the city, and now think of this bagel as being the most important and satisfying resolution to any of my food odysseys.

Making someone else happy

Food pursuits can be about appeasing someone else’s desires rather than your own. I have a dear friend who spent great chunks of her life trying to please her 90-year-old, very particular mother. We all know how favorite items can disappear from grocery shelves, and this woman had lived long enough to endure many such disappointments, or, as her daughter put it, “my mother had only to like a product for it to go belly up.”

To buy up a remaining supply of a discontinued breath mint her mother claimed helped her digestion, my friend spent hours running around from one Greater Chicago gas station to another, scooping up all she could find to deliver to Mother. Another disappointment had to do with the demise of freeze-dried instant Sanka coffee, much beloved by her mother who adamantly rejected the powdered kind. This product was wiped out when Folger’s took over the market and crushed its competitor. In a relentless search for any remaining Sanka, my friend scoured large and small grocery stores, going farther and farther from her neighborhood with only an occasional payoff — a dusty jar at the back of a high shelf. Soon, those sources, too, were depleted.

The Cronut food obsession

I love to hear about other people’s food obsessions, and am happy and relieved to say that I seldom get caught up in them, since I have enough of my own. Most notably, we are seeing the stampede for Cronuts, that clever alliance between a doughnut and a croissant invented a little over a year ago by a New York pastry chef. His shop opens at 8 a.m., and people start lining up hours before for the privilege of buying two Cronuts, a rationing system that was put in place in response to demand. I would add that the lines and the rationing also keep up the hype. Each Cronut costs $5 and is filled with cream and topped with a flavored glaze. The fervor to get them has led to scalpers standing in those lines and profiting by reselling the pastries to well-heeled stayabeds.

Although the name “Cronuts” has been trademarked, the idea is available to all bakeries that want to bake and sell impostors. Imitations with such names as “doissants,” “crodoughs” and “kronuts” have shown up, and even the quite literally-named “doughnut croissant.” I have buzzed around and tasted a couple of these knockoffs and shrugged, although I would concede that the original is probably better, and someday I may get to try one.  But, all in all, I’d rather be eating a flagel.

Main photo: Flagels. Credit: Barbara Haber

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Travel food. From left: Marcona almonds, stuffed peppers, albacore tuna, two types of olives, olive oil, Bomba rice for paella, and in the foreground sweet orange-flavored torta made with olive oil. Credit: Barbara Haber

I never thought I would say this, but I am beginning to miss airline meals. I know, I know, they were pretty bad, but at least they could fill the belly, even if you only picked away at bits of chicken and a few lettuce leaves and ate up the dinner roll.

You could at least ward off hunger and not be at the mercy of airline snacks. Nowadays, of course, for those of us who travel coach, snack foods are the only available edibles. It is possible, I reckon, to fly from coast to coast eating only pretzels. Even the more nourishing peanuts are no longer offered because everyone is so concerned about peanut allergies, fearing that even a whiff of them can cause passengers to keel over.

Travel food worthy of vacation

When flying, I try to bring along something decent like roasted almonds, slices of cheddar and a Granny Smith apple, but I don’t always remember, so this is why I sometimes long for that tray of food that used to be set down before my grim face.

Some food lovers think ahead and pack a delectable meal if leaving home or, when heading back to the airport, they pick up good travel food from a favorite deli before getting anywhere near an airplane. A good friend from California who is in New York now and then, never leaves the city without a pastrami sandwich, thus extending her New York visit just a little bit longer.

Another trick of the wary traveler is to pack a lunch from a breakfast buffet just before heading for the airport. I do this when I am staying in a favorite hotel that offers such a buffet, managing to stow away a hard-cooked egg, an orange and a muffin, thus protected from whatever may befall me. Feeling like a bag lady, I always hope that no one I know will catch me squirreling away the food, but if it happens I go into a long ramble about the terrors of airplane food.

But such a humble lunch does not appeal to everyone. I know a woman who never forgets to organize and bring along her own travel food that is always the envy of other airline passengers. First she spreads a placemat on her tray table, then retrieves from her hand luggage a slice of country pâté and cornichons, thinly sliced rye bread, a wedge of Roquefort, naval orange segments, and squares of dark chocolate. A small bottle of fine wine used to accompany her meal, but now that stiff airline regulations prevent liquids in carry-ons, she drinks whatever she can find tolerable on the plane, often only water.

An improvised travelers’ feast

The best improvised meal I ever had in connection with air travel occurred some years ago when I was heading back from Spain from a food trip. About 10 other people who had been on that trip were with me on the flight from Madrid to New York City when our plane suddenly had engine trouble, did an about-face and delivered us back to Madrid. We were told that we would be staying overnight at a small hotel near the airport until our plane was appropriately repaired.

We managed to communicate with family and friends back home to explain the problem and, realizing we had no other choice, decided to make the best of it. Vouchers for a free meal in the hotel dining room were distributed and we bravely trooped in to face a cafeteria-style steam table filled with gray meat, mashed potatoes and overcooked vegetables. That was not Spanish food at all, but stuff designed for tourists on a low budget, so we foodies all turned away and decided to rummage in our carry-ons to throw together a meal of  travel food we hoped would contain a little joy.

We met in one of our rooms, each carrying various bottles, jars, cans and packages of food we had collected on the trip. A more normal group of travelers would have been carrying souvenirs such as fragile ceramic bowls or figurines, but we had our own ideas about what to bring back from a foreign country.

Out came hunks of manchego cheese, cans of sardines, jars of bonito tuna, olives and peppers, Galician bread, boxes of crisp crackers from Seville and marcona almonds, those distinctly Spanish nuts that bring almonds to a higher level. The sweet lovers among us provided a dessert of almond turron and those chocolate-stuffed figs I have seen only in Spain.

It was a memorable and certainly a movable feast. And I know that if we had been given kitchen privileges, we might have whipped up a paella since some of us had the skill to do it as well as the fixings.

We all had tucked away bags of bomba rice and tins of smoked paprika because that’s what you buy in Spain. This improvised meal was surpassed only by the generosity and fun of the company, for food people know how to cheer one another up when stuck somewhere in a seedy airport hotel far from home.

Main photo: Travel food, from left: Marcona almonds, stuffed peppers, albacore tuna, roasted red peppers, olive oil, Bomba rice for paella, and in the foreground sweet orange-flavored torta made with olive oil. Credit: Barbara Haber

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Irrfan Khan as Saajan Fernandes in

For decades in Mumbai, famously efficient deliverymen called dabba wallahs or dabbawala (one who carries a box) have delivered as many as 200,000 hot meals a day, usually made in home kitchens, to doorsteps and businesses across the city.

The intricacies of this extraordinary colonial-era tradition are revealed in director Ritesh Batra’s new film, “The Lunchbox.”

The practice can be traced to 1890 when Mahadeo Havaji Bacche launched an operation with about 100 men. The system depends on teamwork, organization, color-coding and timing, using “tiffins” as the tin lunchboxes are called.

The meals are collected by the dabbawalas from homes between 7 and 9 am. The hot food is kept warm by each cook wrapping the tiered lunchbox in a quilted carrier. Dozens of tiffins are slung over the back of a dabbawala, who takes them to the nearest railway station where they are placed on the platform and sorted by color codes that designate the area to which each tiffin is to be delivered.

The “Dabbawala Special” is a train that arrives between 10 and 11:30 a.m. and takes the tins to the various areas of the city where they are to be delivered. At each destination a dabbawala will then pick up 35 to 40 tiffins. It usually takes about 15 minutes for each carrier to locate all of his tiffins and arrange them on his wooden crate, which he then hauls either by hand or behind a bicycle and delivers at around noon. The dabbawala will then be responsible for returning the tiffins at the end of the day.

An intricate system

A single tiffin can change hands three or four times before it is finally delivered to its eater. Once lunch hour is over, the whole process reverses, returning the tiffins to the railway platforms, then to the dabbawala and finally to the suburban homes by 6 p.m.

The original dabbawalas are believed to have been descendants of soldiers of the legendary Maharashtrian warrior-king Shivaji who arrived in Mumbai from places like Junnar and Maashi. Now many are former farmers who couldn’t earn enough from the land or in their communities and hope that relatives in Mumbai already working as dabbawalas will find a vacancy for them. Each new dabbawala’s minimum requirement for work is some capital, two bicycles, a wooden crate for the tiffins, and at least one white cotton kurta-pyjama.

In 1970 the organization was restructured, and the dabbawalas were divided into sub-groups of 15 to 25, each supervised by four mukadams, which are the experienced old-timers who are familiar with the colors and codings of the lunchboxes. Growth in each of the sub-groups depends on what the market will support. New customers are acquired through referrals. But if a lunchbox is misplaced, stolen or lost, an investigation is initiated immediately and customers are allowed to deduct any costs from the responsible dabbawala. A 1998 study of the operation showed there was only one error in 6 million transactions.

A misplaced lunchbox

And this is where “The Lunchbox” begins. It is the story of a widowed office worker, Mr. Fernandes, who is nearing retirement, and a young neglected housewife, Ilya, who thinks her husband might be having an affair. After some advice from an unseen Auntie, Ilya decides that she can win her husband back by improving on the daily noon meal she cooks for him and has delivered by a dabbawala. We are witness over time to the most delicious concoctions: meals such a chicken xacuti, fish puttu, vegetable biryani, aadi perukku and an array of naans and chutneys that Ilya lovingly prepares.

On the first day of her husband’s new and improved lunch, the dabbawala misplaces her tiffin and instead, delivers it to Mr. Fernandes. When he opens his lunchbox to this new delightful meal he is astounded and confused. His enjoyment of that first meal is wonderful to watch.

As these wonderful lunches continue, the mistaken delivery is not reported by either Mr. Fernandes or Ilya. It is the kind of good luck that both of them appreciate. Good food can change a heart. Day by day the lunches continue to improve, and the two begin a simple exchange of letters.

I won’t tell you what happens, but just that the movie is full of delightful moments that made me whip out all of my Indian cookbooks. The serendipitous meeting of two people that occurs because of a mistaken delivery by a dabbawala in a city the size of Mumbai bringing about the end of loneliness is one in 6 million. Don’t miss “The LunchBox.” It will satisfy all your senses.

Top photo: Irrfan Khan as Saajan Fernandes in “The Lunchbox.” Credit: Michael Simmonds, courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

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The distinctive Moroccan ceramic tagine. Credit: David Latt

When skies turn dark and temperatures plunge, out come the short lists of dishes to warm body and soul. To those lists should be added an easy-to-make hot, savory, deliciously satisfying Moroccan-style chicken tagine.

Making a tagine sounds exotic, but at its heart, the dish is a one-pot braise, a technique as basic to an American kitchen as beef stew.

Traveling with half a dozen food writers on a hosted trip to Morocco, at the trekking hotel, Kasbah du Toubkal, we were given a cooking demonstration by Hajjah Rkia ben Houari (“Hajjah” is an  honorific given to a woman who has completed a pilgrimage to Mecca) and her assistant Fatima. In her kitchen with a view of the High Atlas Mountains, she showed us how to make classic Moroccan dishes: chicken tagine, preserved lemons and lamb couscous. She started the lesson by reminding us that having quality, fresh ingredients is essential.

The chickens, lamb, fresh vegetables and herbs came from the nearby open-air market in the Berber village of Asni. The spices were from vendors, much like the ones we saw in the Marrakesh and Fez souks with their finely ground spices organized in mounds next to bushels filled to overflowing with olives, dates, dried fruit, dried beans and herbs.

Home cooking in the High Atlas Mountains

In the pantry between Hajjah Rkia’s kitchen and the laundry room, sitting on short stools around a low table, we felt a bit like nursery school kids on a field trip. With our knees bumping against the table, we were her prep chefs. She assigned tasks — peeling onions, garlic, carrots and potatoes — and the translator explained how we would cook the dish according to our host’s Berber traditions.

At the end of the cooking demonstration, Hajjah Rkia’s son made Moroccan-style mint tea, which meant the teapot was held high in the air as a hot stream of black tea flavored with fresh mint was poured into small glass cups. He explained the long stream aerated the tea and gave it added flavor qualities. Without the benefit of a test kitchen, we couldn’t validate that opinion, but we loved the spectacle and the tea was delicious.

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On a highway stop between Fez and Marrakech, Morocco, a take-out cafe serving different tagines. Credit: David Latt

Just before we sat down for dinner, Fatima cooked flat bread on an outdoor clay stove fueled by wood and charcoal. Charred on the outside, the bread was chewy on the inside. To stimulate our appetites, Fatima’s handmade bread arrived at the table warm from the fire with a plate of fresh feta cheese and a bowl of spicy Moroccan olives. Then the table was set with large platters of the dishes made during the cooking demonstration. What a feast.

Translating Moroccan classics in an American kitchen

Back in my own kitchen, facing an inclement day when friends were coming over for dinner, I remembered that wonderful meal at Hajjah Rkia’s. The chicken tagine appealed to me as the perfect way to beat back the cold. I adapted the recipe to my own palate and the realities of a Southern California kitchen.

In Morocco the pot used to prepare a tagine is a shallow pan with a distinctive conical top. Lacking a tagine, I find the qualities of the dish can be approximated using a covered pot that has a vented lid to promote the thickening of the sauce through evaporation. I use an inexpensive Chinese clay pot, which works well.

Before using a clay or ceramic pot, always check the manufacturer’s instructions. Some pots should be soaked in cold water before using. For some pots, a diffuser must be placed between the pot and the heat source to prevent cracking.

Chicken With Preserved Lemons, Cracked Olives and Golden Raisins

Preserved lemons give the dish a bright, citrus finish. Easy to make at home, preserved lemons will keep refrigerated for months. The lemons can be used after one week, although the longer they have been preserved, the more they will have their distinctive “perfume” flavor.

As a side dish, Moroccan pickled vegetables provide a tangy complement to the savory tagine. The pickles are fun to make and, like the lemons, will keep refrigerated for months.

This recipe calls for cracked olives, which are olives that have been “cracked” sometimes by hand, sometimes by machine to create a deep cut in one side of the olive reaching to the pit. That allows the brine to reach deep into the olive. In cracked olives, the pits are mostly separated from the “meat” because of the cracking. The advantage of cracked olives in a braised dish is the sauce soaks deeply into the olives and the saltiness of the olive passes into the sauce so the effect is different from using regular olives.

Serves 4

Ingredients

1 whole chicken, 3 to 4 pounds, washed

¼ cup kosher salt

¼ cup golden raisins

1 tablespoon ground black pepper, divided

3 tablespoons lemon juice

4 garlic cloves, peeled

⅓ bunch fresh cilantro, stems and leaves

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 medium red or yellow onion, peeled, finely chopped

1 teaspoon ground ginger

¼ teaspoon of powdered saffron (optional)

⅛ teaspoon cayenne powder (optional)

2 cups chicken stock (preferably homemade)

1 preserved lemon, rinsed, white pith removed, finely chopped

1 cup cracked green olives

Sea salt and black pepper to taste

⅛ teaspoon cayenne powder (optional)

Directions

1. Place the whole chicken in a large container, cover with water. Add the kosher salt. Refrigerate overnight.

2. Place the golden raisins, ¼ teaspoon of the black pepper and lemon juice into a covered container. Allow the raisins to absorb the juice for at least one hour or overnight.

3. Before cooking, rinse the chicken and pat dry. Using a sharp knife, remove the breast meat, legs, thighs and wings from the carcass. Cut apart the wings at the joints. Debone the thighs and legs, taking off the skin.

4. Place the carcass, skin and wing tips into a large pot, cover with water and simmer 60 minutes. Strain the bones. Reserve the stock. The meat on the bones can be picked off and used in a salad or a soup. Refrigerate the chicken stock. When cooled, remove the fat and discard.

5. Finely chop the garlic and cilantro.

6. Cut each chicken breast into four, equal sized pieces. Cut the deboned thighs into four and the legs into two pieces.

7. Over a medium flame, heat the olive oil in a tagine or pot. Add the onions, ground ginger, saffron (optional), garlic and cilantro. For additional heat, dust with cayenne powder (optional). Stir well and cook for two to three minutes.

8. Sauté the wings, thighs and legs in the seasoned oil until lightly browned. Do not add the chicken breasts, which require less cooking time.

9. Finely chop the raisins, which have now absorbed the pepper-flavored lemon juice.

10. Add raisins, remaining black pepper-lemon juice and chicken stock. Stir well to create the sauce. Cover and gently simmer 30 to 40 minutes or until the chicken meat is tender.

11. Add chicken breast pieces, cracked green olives and finely chopped preserved lemon peel.

12. Cover and simmer 20 minutes. Taste and adjust seasoning with sea salt or ground pepper. Serve hot with steamed rice as a side dish.

Variations

  • Do not debone the breast, thigh and legs. Traditionally, the chicken is quartered and the wings are kept whole.
  • Along with the onions, add other vegetables of your choice such as leeks, peeled potatoes, carrots, cauliflower and turnips, cut into bite-sized pieces.
  • For added sweetness, dissolve 1 tablespoon honey in the chicken stock.
  • Before adding the vegetables, lightly drizzle them with olive oil and roast for 15 minutes in a 350 degree F oven on a parchment-paper-lined baking tray.
  • Serve with steamed spinach instead of rice.
  • Serve with boiled or mashed potatoes instead of rice.

Top photo: The distinctive Moroccan ceramic tagine. Credit: David Latt

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Pesce spade alla “stemperata” made with red snapper. Credit: Clifford A. Wright

One of the most beautiful cities in Sicily is Syracuse, which has a history extending to the ancient Greeks. There is a method of cooking in Syracuse, especially applied to Sicilian fish, but other foods as well, that makes for beguiling dishes.

Stemperata is a Syracusean method of cooking that means something like “melting sauce” or “tempering sauce.”

The idea behind “melting sauce” is to meld a number of aromatic ingredients together by cooking slowly until the sauce or food is infused with flavor. The dish is finished with a sprinkle of vinegar that evaporates, or “melts,” into the sauce and it is the vinegar that gives the dish its distinctive flavor. Whenever you see a dish described as stemperata, you know it is a dish from Syracuse.

The concept of stemperata finds its roots in medieval cooking. According to the prevailing theory of dietetics at the time, prepared food had properties that would match the temperament of the person eating it.

In the mood for Sicilian fish

Certain foods were ideal for particular conditions or temperaments. The nature of foods could be changed by tempering the food with additions such as sauces or spicing.

In medieval Italian cookbooks one runs across the term temperare, which takes on a greater meaning than “to temper.” It implies that one corrects the food so it will conform to a dietetic humoral notion. So the Italian stemperare has the sense of taking something away, and in this recipe it is the vinegar that “is taken away” through evaporation to moderate the taste of the sauce.

This Sicilian fish dish is called pesce spada alla “stemperata” and it is typically made with swordfish, but two whole red snapper work well. The recipe, though, is written for swordfish.

Pesce Spade alla ‘Stemperata’

Serves 4

Ingredients

5 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

1 medium onion, finely chopped

½ celery stalk, finely chopped

1½ tablespoons capers, rinsed and chopped if large

10 large green olives, pitted and chopped

1 pound ripe tomatoes, peeled, seeded, and chopped

⅓  cup water

1½ pounds swordfish steaks, cut into ½-inch-thick slices

All-purpose flour for dredging

1 tablespoon white wine vinegar

Directions

1. In a large sauté pan or earthenware casserole, heat the olive oil over medium-high heat, then cook, stirring frequently, the onion and celery until softened, 5 to 6 minutes. (If using earthenware and if it is not flameproof, or if you don’t know, you will need to use a heat diffuser. Earthenware heats up slower but retains its heat longer than non-earthenware casseroles. When using earthenware, food may cook slower at first and then cook very quickly while retaining its heat, so adjust accordingly). Reduce the heat to medium, add the capers, olives and tomatoes, and stir. Pour in the water, stir again, and cook until denser, 10 minutes.

2. Dredge the swordfish slices in the flour, tapping off any excess flour. Set aside.

3. Arrange the swordfish slices in the pan or casserole on top of the sauce, spooning some sauce on top of the swordfish. Drizzle the vinegar over the fish, cover, and cook over medium heat until the vinegar is evaporated, 5 to 6 minutes. Serve hot.

Top photo: Pesce spade alla “stemperata” made with red snapper. Credit: Clifford A. Wright

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Crêpes to celebrate chandeleur. Credit: Phillip Sinsheimer

Early February in France means it is time to get your pans ready. The winter days are finally getting a little longer and sunnier and la chandeleur (derived from chandelle, “candle” in French) is at hand, which means crêpes are in the air.

The French tradition, combining pagan and Christian origins, has been going on for centuries, but it seems to be losing momentum. Everyone still knows about it, but fewer and fewer seem to indulge in the annual crêpes orgy.

As in other parts of the world, home cooking is on the decline while TV food shows are getting more popular. Bakeries now sell ready-made crêpes for a quick fix at nearly $2 a pop. “Ridicule,” said my mother over the phone the other day. And Maman, as often, is probably right. Crêpes are a fun, easy to do homemade affair.

The church, crêpes and a sweet tradition

What are we celebrating, besides a humble form of sweet gluttony? In the Catholic Church, chandeleur marks the presentation of the child Jesus, his first entry into the temple, as well as the day of the Virgin Mary’s purification. I fail to see how thin pancakes came in the picture, except for the resemblance one could see between them and the halo depicted over the heads of holy figures in religious paintings since the 4th century or so.

The pagan origin of the chandeleur links more directly to the round disks of cooked dough the form and shape of the sun which, come February, becomes more and more present as days get longer at a faster pace. It’s not spring yet, but you can see light at the end of the tunnel, and it is still cold enough in most parts of the Northern Hemisphere to stand in front a stove flipping pancakes without having to turn the air conditioning on.

This is also the period of the year when winter wheat was being sowed. Crêpes were a way to celebrate the flour to come by using the one at hand. Interestingly enough, a Comité de la Chandeleur was founded and funded by a major French flour producer in 1997,  reminding the population of the godly tradition with ads and billboards. The committee no longer exists. It is now in our hands to make the tradition survive.

A simple crêpes recipe for indulgence

Like every person brought up in France in the last century, I have my good share of childhood crêpe memories: pleasure and pain mixed in a batter of family recollections. While my father and brother were expert at eating the end result, my mother and I were excited by the making process.

We didn’t bother with a recipe and that in itself shows the tradition was still vivid, culturally ingrained. We just knew what to put in the dough: flour, eggs, milk, as well as water, cider or beer, a little fat (oil or melted butter), a little sugar, a touch of booze, traditionally dark rum, and a dash of salt. The trick was to avoid any lumps by using first a wooden spoon and then a whisk.

After letting the batter rest for an hour or so, came the time to show more developed skills. For years, we didn’t have a non-stick pan. We dipped a halved potato in oil to grease the thin metallic pan we used for about everything. With time, I’ve favored using a piece of paper towel folded in fourths and dunked in oil rather than a spud, leaving me to wonder how common paper towels were in Paris in the 1960s. The first crêpe always stuck, no matter what.

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Crepes celebrate the sun as the winter days finally begin to get a little longer. Credit: Phillip Sinsheimer

At age 7, there was my culinary confirmation that you can’t always get things right the first time in life. The ugly torn crêpe was eaten nonetheless, giving the chance to adjust the recipe-free batter with a little more liquid, salt or sugar if necessary.

If the crêpe didn’t have enough elasticity an egg was added and then, we were good to go. A super-hot pan is essential to achieve one of the essential criteria of a noble French crêpe,  thinness, or finesse. Held as a rising sun, the crêpe was supposed to let light go through it, if not the image of my smiling mother behind the lump-free delicacy. A ladle was poured in the super-hot greased pan and then, with a swift movement of the wrist, the batter was to cover the whole pan in a thin coating.

Mastering crêpe-making technique

Chandeleur folklore says that if you manage to flip the crêpe in the air while holding a gold coin in your left hand, good fortune will come your way. I’ve personally never seen this done, perhaps because our entourage didn’t carry gold around so often. We just weren’t keen on the tossing-in-the-air show, partially because our crêpes needed some help with our bare fingers to be lifted off the pan.

When the edge started to get brown, we lifted one side with a small knife, then pinched the crêpe with both hands and flip it as fast as possible to avoid blisters in the process. I was always fascinated by the fact that the A-side of our edible records had a beautiful, uniform golden hue, whereas the B-side looked so different with its erratic brown spots.

We kept piling the crêpes on top of each other on a plate set atop a pot of simmering water so that we could enjoy our crêpes warm en famille. Brother and father were called to come and the filling game began with a variety of jams and spreads. For me, butter and sugar were the only fixings I needed to make me forget my reddened fingers, as crêpes were washed down with Normand cider, mindless of the few degrees of alcohol that helped make the pain go away and the party feel special.

Crêpes

Makes about 12 crêpes

Ingredients

1 cup all-purpose flour

1 tablespoon sugar

¼ tsp salt

2 large eggs

1 cup milk

6 tablespoons water (or beer or cider)

1 tablespoon melted butter (or neutral oil)

1 tablespoon dark rum or cognac (optional)

Oil  and paper towel to oil pan

Directions

1. Sift the flour with sugar and salt in a mixing bowl. Whisk in eggs, milk, water, melted butter and rum or cognac.

2. Let rest for 1 hour or more.

3. Heat pan greased with oiled paper towel. Add ¼ cup of batter or so and tilt the pan in a circular manner to spread the batter as fast as possible. When edges begin to brown, flip over with your hands or in the air and cook the other side 30 seconds.

4. Place cooked crêpe on a plate and repeat, repeat, repeat!

Tips and variations:

  • To avoid any lumps and go faster, mix batter in a blender adding dry ingredients into the wet ones.
  • For savory crêpes, eliminate sugar and alcohol from batter and add a dash more salt.
  • To keep crêpes warm, place them on a plate sitting atop a saucepan with simmering water.
  • Typically, French crêpes are rolled or folded in four.
  • You can also layer the crêpes one on top of each other smeared with one or several toppings until you obtain a form of cake that you can then slice in wedges.
  • Crepes can be kept wrapped in plastic and refrigerated up to 3 days or frozen up to 3 months.

Top photo: Crêpes to celebrate chandeleur. Credit: Philip Sinsheimer

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Weisswurst and sauerkraut. Credit: Clifford A. Wright

German food can be quite inaccessible. Many people think of it as heavy or they aren’t sure exactly what it is beyond sausages and sauerkraut. But what’s wrong with starting off with sausages and sauerkraut, especially for a cold winter party? This all came to mind because of an old family photo I came across while scanning.

It was of my mother sitting on the terrace of the General Walker hotel in Obersalzberg, Bavaria, in 1954. It dawned on me that nine years before this was the Berghof, Hitler’s Alpine retreat. The U.S. Army captured it in 1945, and the property became a hotel as part of the U.S. Armed Forces Recreation Center (AFRC).

My father was stationed with the Air Force in France at the time, and we often vacationed at U.S. Armed Forces retreats. In the photo, my mother, Helen DeYeso Wright, enjoys the sun on the same terrace where Hitler sat only some years before with Hermann Goering. During the same visit, I played nearby with my sister dressed in Bavarian costumes my parents bought.

The early 1950s was a time before the West German economic miracle, and the Germans were a vanquished and humbled people, ashamed but confused about their recent Nazi past, fearful of Soviet Russia, and very friendly towards Americans. I asked my mother about that time and she told me that the area was beautiful. She described Hitler’s bunker, which still existed in 1954.

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The author’s mother Helen DeYeso Wright in Obersalzberg, 1956. Credit: Harold I. Wright

The Germans in the mid-1950s, she said, were very friendly and my parents opted to eat in town rather than at the General Walker, which only served American food. My parents wanted German food, and although neither one of them were beer drinkers, they downed their steins of lager with, as she called it, those “big fat sausages” (weisswurst), spaetzle, sauerkraut, roast potatoes and “really fantastic” apple strudel.

Bavarian sausage traditions

To this day Bavaria is sausage central, where hearty and delicious food is still enjoyed by beer-loving Germans and tourists so far removed from those horrible times it’s hard to believe it happened there at all. At that moment I realized I wanted to sink my teeth into some weisswurst. A Bavarian weisswurst mit sauerkraut is not hard to do, because you’re only reheating as you will have bought the weisswurst and the sauerkraut and the mustard, hopefully from your nearest German delicatessen.

Weisswurst, literally white sausage, is a traditional Bavarian sausage made of very finely chopped veal and pork fat back flavored with parsley, lemon, mace, ginger, onions and sometimes cardamom, though different sausage makers make it a bit differently each time. Traditionally it is eaten with a warm soft pretzel and sweet mustard. In the rural tradition, it is eaten in the method known as zutzln where the sausage meat is squeezed out of the casing with one’s teeth directly into the mouth.

Once you find weisswurst at a delicatessen or grocery store, you can boil it before serving, or you can boil and then fry it.

Finding weisswurst harder than preparing it

The best advice I can given about having a weisswurst mit sauerkraut party in the middle of winter is to visit a local German deli and buy their freshly made sausage, not pre-cooked or packaged weisswurst from the supermarket. There are plenty of German delis all over the country and a quick Google search will turn one up for you. The same goes for the sauerkraut. Mail order is a second option, although weisswurst are highly perishable and you’ll need to have your sausage shipped express, overnight in a cold pack.

Bavaria Sausage of Wisconsin sells sauerkraut and Bavarian mustard as well. The beer you should be able to get everywhere, and only Bavarian lager will do. Prost und gutes Essen! (Cheers and bon appetit!)

Top photo: Weisswurst and sauerkraut. Credit: Clifford A. Wright

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